It doesn’t take an old China hand to know that there are rarely clear-cut answers when it comes to Chinese politics. Anybody who tells you that the recent sacking of Bo Xilai was obviously ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the future of Chinese politics, hasn’t considered all of the ramifications.
Basing our assumptions on the premise that increased transparency and more freedom (both social and economic) are desired outcomes for the future of China, and we consider what Bo Xilai represented, then we are faced with a conundrum.
ARGUMENT 1: “Bo Xilai’s sacking bodes well for the future. He wanted to resurrect Maoism and he ran roughshod over the rule of law. He was an enemy of liberalism”.
Bo Xilai hails from China’s leftist faction – though when you hear that term ‘leftist’ you best make sure you’re aware of what ‘leftist’ means in Chinese. (To brutally summarize, it means an emphasis on economic equality, but it’s tied in with Maoism and has little respect for free expression and individual rights. Rightists are essentially the opposite).
He was a fair representation of ‘guojin mintui’: a chestnut often dragged out in these debates, which essentially means that as the state takes control, the private sector retreats. This issue become particularly pointed when it enters the realm of media and propaganda. Perhaps the most damning indictment of Bo Xilai’s ‘nationalize first, ask questions later’ approach was his seizing of Chongqing Satellite TV as part of his red-culture campaign (which also involved singing, dancing and even text messages). But don’t take my word for it, it’s probably better to read the views of the journalists at Chongqing Satellite TV who witnessed it all. With advertising revenue gone and wall to wall propaganda, it’s unsurprising that revenues plummeted.
Despite this, the ‘red culture’ campaign stands as one of Bo’s success stories. That and his campaign against organized crime.
Of course, in the course of this campaign against organized crime, he wasn’t particularly focused on the niggling requirements of legal procedure. I’ve written before about Bo’s past and how he was likely to make enemies but it’s unlikely that the depth of misconduct that existed within this anti-corruption operation will ever be revealed. It was a massive operation – to put it in perspective, the New York Times stated: “The spectacle involves more than 9,000 suspects, 50 public officials, a petulant billionaire and criminal organizations that dabbled in drug trafficking, illegal mining, and random acts of savagery, most notably the killing of a man for his unbearably loud karaoke voice.”
A trial of that scale is bound to have some discrepancies. The real question is, on what scale? The fact that Li Zhuang, who was a lawyer representing one of those implicated in the Chongqing gang trials, was himself put on trial, raised a number of concerns. First and foremost, those who testified against him weren’t even required to appear in court. Judges were chosen on the basis of their ‘political quality’ and it’s pretty clear that the priority of the case was to gain convictions – not follow any kind of process.
The way in which he fell from grace also raises a number of frightening questions. What was his relationship with Neil Heywood? Why did his relationship with Wang Lijun, previously respected as one of China’s top anti-corruption police officers, turn so sour?
COUNTERARGUMENT: “Bo Xilai’s authoritarianism was overstated. He fought corruption and was one of the few Chinese politicians who engaged with the public and sought public approval. He could have been a harbinger of a more participatory form of politics.”
Whilst it’s true that Bo Xilai nationalized Chongqing Satellite TV and made it broadcast nationalist rhetoric, one should bear in mind that it was one channel of many. Plenty of private (well, as private as they get in China) networks beamed in all manner of TV shows with all manner of advertising. Is it so strange that a public network is restricted from showing advertising material? A number of Western countries have state-owned broadcasters which are prohibited from broadcasting commercial content. Sure, it had a Chinese nationalistic flavour, but it was hardly as if the local people had no other choices.
Consider Bo Xilai’s fight against organized crime. It’s true that he didn’t show a great deal of regard for the rights of those he was pursuing. But isn’t that the responsibility of the legal system? Essentially, Bo Xilai used the system that is in place all over China. Bo was hardly the first powerful person to overlook the letter of the law.
He pursued the corrupt more aggressively, but how is that a bad thing? You can blame the system, but hardly get angry when someone uses that system to deal with rampant corruption. Remember that China is a country where there have been recent attempts to legalize enforced disappearances, and where petitioners have been accused of being mentally ill and detained. Is Bo Xilai really the epitome of disregard for the rule of law?
We can wring our hands at Bo Xilai’s seemingly authoritarian approach, but consider the fact that he’s one of the few Chinese politicians to express alarm at the rapidly widening gini coefficient. He was also one of the few Chinese politicians who perhaps, had the will to do something about it.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider is the fact that Bo Xilai was open about his ambitions. He communicated with the public. He held regular press conferences. He eschewed the system of back-door deals in favour of engaging with the public. Isn’t this precisely the kind of thing that would lead Chinese politics towards more transparency? In witnessing his downfall, isn’t the cause of participatory politics being significantly set back?
So there you have the two sides of the debate. Which side do you fall on?